By Jose Torres Jr.
The Philippine government has announced it is pushing back peace negotiations with communist rebels that were scheduled to start on June 28.
Government negotiator Jesus Dureza said President Rodrigo Duterte wanted a wider public consultation before restarting formal talks with the rebels.
He said the president wanted “stakeholders on the ground” to be engaged through consultations. “Lasting peace will only happen when people understand these peace efforts,” Dureza said.
No date has been given as to when negotiations would resume.
“The president said let’s reset. Give us time to work some more,” said Dureza, adding that Duterte wanted an “implementable” peace agreement.
Rebel negotiator Fidel Agcaoili called the delay “a setback.”
He said the rebel panel will meet a government team on June 16 to discuss the timetable.
Exiled rebel leader Jose Maria Sison expressed disappointment over the cancellation.
“It is starkly clear the [Philippine government] under Duterte is not interested in serious peace negotiations,” Sison said in a statement from the Netherlands.
Sison, founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, said “the revolutionary forces … have no choice but to single-mindedly wage [a] people’s war.”
The exile leader sits as adviser of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, an alliance of revolutionary groups negotiating peace with the government.
Church leaders and peace advocates called the postponement “quite frustrating.”
“As church leaders, we were looking forward to the reported ‘stand-down’ ceasefire agreement which means that both sides will cease offensive military operations,” said Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro.
The prelate heads the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform, which has been facilitating peace efforts among grassroots communities around the country.
Archbishop Ledesma said a “stand-down” deal and interim peace agreements could result in “lesser violence” and further loss of life.
A “stand-down agreement” requiring the forces of both sides not to commit any offensive military operations has already been drafted.
In a statement on June 15, peace group Kapayapaan said the sudden suspension of talks was “irrational [and] unjustifiable” and put the peace process in peril.
The suspension of the talks came on the heels of a conference this week where top police and military officials aired concerns over the rebels’ “tendency to regroup” during peace talks.
Government and rebel negotiators had been holding unofficial talks since early this year after Duterte ordered a stop to formal negotiations in November.
The president ended the on-and-off negotiations after both sides accused each other of violating their ceasefire agreement.
The Duterte administration is the sixth to hold peace talks with the communist movement, which has been waging nearly five decades of insurgency against the government.
Mark Saludes contributed to this report.